Support and Friendship

I love cards. I love making cards, sending cards, and getting cards. In the age of texts, emails, and communication through social media, receiving a bona fide card in the mail is rare. A few friends and I send cards to each other regularly. Mind you this officially makes us old school (but not old). Maybe a special occasion is being marked. Quite often sending the card is what makes the occasion special. We just do it. It’s one way we celebrate our friendship and show we are there for one another.

Emily sends me cards often. We met through fate as roommates our freshman year in college. We bonded over many things, but I can’t imagine having the relationship I have with her with any of the other young women who were randomly thrown together to share a room the size of an oversized closet. I am so grateful she is still one of my closest friends today. The last card she sent me was on my survivorversary to mark seven years since my diagnosis of metastatic cancer. Somehow she always finds the perfect card. She writes words heavy in meaning and hope.

The most recent card she sent me had a photo of a robin featured on the front that splashed about in a birdbath even though it was caught in the rain. The caption on the front even referenced the bird always managed to “find a way.” The words jumped out at me since that is a personal mantra of mine as well as words of inspiration for the title of my blog. The message on the inside of the card concluded with the thought that the robin kept singing through the rain.

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Card created by Cardthartic.

Emily’s personal words were supportive and encouraging. She connected the theme in the card by writing she was proud of my “strength and song through the past seven years of rain.” I’ve tried. I’ve been the robin. I’ve walked through a lot of rain. I’ve been the rain, too. I’ve also warmed myself in long periods of sunshine.

I received the card on my actual survivorversary. It coincided with the day I saw my first robins returning from winter. Symbolism is rarely lost on me. I look for signs. There is a lengthy list of positive qualities that robins possess in the world of symbolism, too many to elaborate on here. For the sake of brevity, robins symbolize renewal and rebirth since they are a spring bird. I’ve read that their beautiful song will bring joy and happiness to a person’s life. I am ready for it. I love that more robins than I could count settled all over my yard on a day that already held significance for me. More strength and song.

Strength and song as a combined force brings beauty and softness to strength. It mixes power and muscle to song. I close my eyes and feel hope when I repeat the words over and over in my mind. Strength and song, strength and song, strength and song. Strength as hope. Song as hope. Both lift me up. They make a good team.

Kristin is another dear friend and sender of some of my favorite cards. She is not just a source of hope for me but also a source of strength and song. I can always be myself and share what’s on my mind whether I am a robin singing or drenched and cold from the rain. We value the same things like gratitude, kindness, helping others, good health, equality, and the environment. We’ve shown up for one another over years of friendship.

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A Green-Inspired card

The support she offers me through a few sentences in cards is immeasurable. She writes of joy and comfort, support and positivity, tears and fears, gratitude, friendship, and humor. Surrounding myself with like-minded individuals is important not just from a perspective of maintaining a healthy and hopeful mindset, but in achieving and sustaining happiness. I am so fortunate to have made a lifelong friend from adolescence and still have such a strong friendship almost forty years later.

I recently received a letter from the University of Wisconsin Foundation that both Emily and Kristin made tribute gifts in my name to the Stage IV Needs More Fund. Both of these friends know of one another through me, but they are not close geographically and do not communicate to my knowledge. Yet, they made a charitable donation at the same time to honor my personal milestone as a survivor. Kristin told me I made good points through my blog that more research is needed for later stage cancers. Their gifts are more than tribute gifts for a cause I often promote. It is a gift that shows two incredibly strong friendships of strength and song. Powerful forces work in mysterious ways.

Emily informed me that Rob and Mary Gooze, who established and oversee the Stage IV Needs More Fund through their work and advocacy, included a hand written thank you as part of their acknowledgement for her gift. A hand written note fits well into the theme for this post. Rob and Mary are incredibly warm people. They took the time to show they were truly grateful for a donation. Cards and hand written notes make a difference.

No one goes out to make a friend with the reasoning that it’s a healthy choice, however, there is a connection between friendships and health. Time spent with the right friends raises levels of happiness and lowers stress. We have a stronger sense of purpose and belonging with friends. Friends are there to provide support through tough times. Friends stand by one another. Studies show that having many friends as you age may even help you live longer. Friendships are pretty powerful forces themselves.

My life is wonderful in part because I have amazing friends.

I almost titled this post Strength and Song instead of Support and Friendship. In the end, I decided to keep it simple and to the point. A synonymous relationship definitely exists in equating the words strength and support. Song and friendship may be a bit more of a stretch, but they have similarities, too. The best friendships keep the beat, develop variations of the same melody, and harmonize with perfect tones. I will always think the words strength and song carry new meanings from this point forward.

Friendship is a priceless gift. My friends are family. Unfortunately, there have been friends who drifted away when I received my cancer diagnosis. They don’t have the strength or song that I need. They don’t know how to show up for me or they don’t want to show up for me. Other people (note the avoidance of the word friends) have shown up in toxic ways and I have chosen to distance myself from them. I have changed, too. I’ve made mistakes, but hope I’m a better friend today than I’ve been in the past. Positivity, support, and hope are qualities I’ve always valued in my friends. I choose to surround myself with friends who have these. My closest friends sing through the rain just like I do. We share one another’s victories and tough times.

Strong friendships that last though the years are built through support, trust, and empathy. Laughing is a must. Tears are not shunned. Having fun and common interests helps. Interests that change and evolve over time may contribute to some friendships that lose their intensity. My good friends and I have always found a way to support one another and stay connected even as our lives changed over the years. We all need friends to celebrate with, cry with, and confide in, no matter what is happening in our lives. I want to stay close to friends who feel like warm sunshine on those rainy days. My friendships that continue to grow are nurtured through connection. Connection makes room for trust, empathy, and hope through strength and song.

Thank you, all my friends, for being my strength and song.

Consider responding:

  • How are friendships important in your life?
  • Do you still send cards in the mail? What is behind your decision?
  • What does strength and song mean to you?

What Objects Tell the Story of Your Life?

This type of question fascinates me. It’s a wonderful opportunity for self-reflection and discovery. The answer can change over time as different significant events are experienced, and even as major interests come and go. When I first started thinking about storytelling objects, the number three popped into my mind. Three objects was a good number. Three objects soon became extremely limiting. Then I tried to compartmentalize my life into three sections: past, present, and future. I could have several objects within each section. The future section posed the biggest problem. A crystal ball is not one of my objects. Time as some sort of construct to organize my story helps, but something is still missing here, too. Finally, I fell back on simple self-reflection to identify objects to represent stories that collectively tell a little bit of the story of my life.

Object: Lisa and the Grompet (book)

Story: Independence

There have been countless times where I’ve unearthed a memory and thought, “Ah-ha, so this is where it started.” I have found letters I wrote to my mom while I lived in Scotland declaring how I might as well go places on my own so I could see as much as I could and do what I wanted. I went all over on my own and thought perhaps this was where my independent streak was born. Being in Scotland for a year, however, was already a story of independence.

But it goes back further. Both my parents always valued education as a way to be independent and for me to stand on my own. Good call, parents. I place a high value on education for many reasons. It continues to give me a lot of happiness. It gave me wonderful years in a career I loved. Being independent enough to support yourself and get to do what you love can’t be matched.

But this story still goes back even further, quite a bit further. I remember my dad dropping me off for Sunday school for the first time. We were early and no one else was there. A little boy showed up. My dad wanted to stick around to make sure I was okay, but I shooed him off, telling him I was just fine and had a new friend. He reluctantly left.

For a long time, I thought this was the first memory of me asserting an independent spirit, but no, I can trace it back further still. As a young child, there was this book I loved to check out repeatedly at the public library – Lisa and the Grompet. It was about a little girl Lisa who was bossed around by everyone in her family.

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Lisa and the Grompet (written and illustrated by Patricia Coombs)

 

She knew what she needed to do.  No one had to keep reminding her. One afternoon she discovered a little grompet creature outside who needed someone to take care of it and tell it what was what. Hmmm . . . I felt a lot like Lisa and never liked being told what I should do. Yes, this I think is where my story of independence subconsciously took root. Maybe I was born knowing I was okay on my own. That would backtrack the story even further. Who knows? I need people like we all do. What I am saying is this book had an effect on me and there has been an identifiable pattern that turns up at other times in my life.

Object: Photos

Story: Family

Photos are an easy choice. I love going through albums and remembering favorite moments with my family. They are a collective timeline of my life, so it’s really not possible to choose just one. Together they tell my story. There are photos of birthdays, holidays, vacations, achievements, picnics, days up at my grandma’s farm, pets, and many special occasions. Every year there was a classic photo of the first day of school. Family experiences and values shape so much of who we become. Looking back at those photos helps me remember those times. Photos of family (and friends who are family) are good storytellers. Perhaps my enjoyment of past photos even points to some of my present interests in photography. Important ideas keep showing up.

Object: Pencils

Story: Teaching and Writing

IMG_1727 I’ve written over twenty years of lesson plans with pencils. Hundreds of kids have used thousands of pencils to demonstrate many levels of learning and understanding. They have borrowed and kept many. Too many. I should have taken out stock in a pencil company. I still prefer a yellow Ticonderoga and get a bit of a rush when I begin to use a newly sharpened pencil with a fresh eraser. I’ve filled diaries and journals as a child and adult. These are great time capsules of years, trips, and things I thought terribly important at the time that are now preserved. Feelings that I never wanted to share anywhere else I could capture with words just for me so I’d remember. Many writing endeavors have been written on my laptop, yet that image of a pencil is a perfect representation for the plans, creativity, and story involved in each of them. Pencils create powerful stories. Pencils don’t have the story, but they are the way the story oozes out, word by word, until something complete and amazing is created.

I’m not sure if it’s true or not, but I’ve heard a single pencil can produce 45,000 words. I don’t doubt that one pencil can create thousands of words. Knowing an intangible quantity awaits inside makes pencils one of the truly powerful and magical objects in the world.

Object: Cells

Story: Cancer

This story sucks.

I remember calling my mom after I had gotten my phone call with the news. She was upset. Then I headed over to her house to show her I really was okay.

I remember the day I told my students I wouldn’t be finishing the rest of the year. I explained I had been seeing a lot of doctors and they had found something wrong with some of my cells that weren’t working the right way. The name for it was cancer. My doctors had a really good plan for me but it meant I had to be away from them. That isn’t exactly where this story started, but it’s where it became common knowledge to a big part of my world beyond my immediate family and a few close friends.

Now, it continues. I marked my 100th treatment at the end of February. I don’t really have the words to express how that number makes me feel. A lot of conflicting emotions overlap in a messy jumble. It’s a juxtaposition of toxicity and life. I’ll keep on keeping on.

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Image credit: pixabay.com

I really hate including this as part of my life’s story.

I’ve argued with myself trying to decide whether to include this part or not.

Me: Maybe I shouldn’t.

Also Me: How could I not?

Me: Don’t give in to it as a factor in your life.

Also Me: Too bad, I really don’t have a lot of moments where I feel truly away from it.

Both of Us: Cancer sucks.

I have worked so hard not to let it define me or become part of my identity. Appointments, treatments, side effects, and other related choices have changed the way I live. I needed to retire. Teaching defined me perhaps more than it should have, but I feel that is something almost innate in my being.

When I decided to blog, I knew sharing about how I’m trying to live well while living with cancer would connect cancer to my life more than I wanted. It’s not a story I wanted to have, but it’s part of my story nonetheless. The image of the pencil also blurs into this story. The teaching story also overlaps. Once again, important ideas keep showing up. I can choose how I tell it by the way I live which is why I’ve chosen to focus on wellness. I have a lot of wellness in me. I want people to see that and see me as me.

Object: Path

Story: Rejuvenation and Future

Paths surrounded by trees are some of my favorite places. Trees re-energize me.

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Path at The Grand Hotel Resort in Point Clear, Alabama.

I am relaxed spending time in nature. From out of nowhere, solutions show up for problems. Something creative happens. Inspiring ideas come to me, whispered by the breeze. The fresh air makes me feel fantastic. Depending where I am, I see turkeys, deer, or cranes. I can’t always see where my path leads and that’s okay. Sometimes I know where I’m going; sometimes I don’t. I’m going somewhere and I choose to believe it’s good.

Many objects make up the story of our lives. Books, photographs, pencils, cells, and paths make up part of my story. These may not be the best objects to choose, but they are what I’ve chosen here. For now, there are many other books to read and photos to take. I have much to write whether with pencils, pens, markers, or keyboards. My story is still being written. Creating an environment where healthy cells thrive and abnormal ones don’t is an important focus. I love being in nature walking familiar paths or exploring new ones.

Ultimately, my story is one where I find a way. Always.

Consider responding:

  • What objects come to mind that could tell part of the story of your life?
  • What special objects hold important memories for you?

Empathy and Cancer

Empathy: the ability to understand and share feelings with another.

I recently read a blog written by an older woman who had a cancer scare that she had to deal with on her own. Her husband had passed away from cancer and she had had enough of it in her life. Her feelings are understandable. Two mammograms directed her to an ultrasound. The ultrasound triggered a biopsy. Her timeline read very much like mine did. One test after another was given with heightened urgency. Everything was fast tracked for this woman because the doctors were worried about the outcome of tests. She didn’t know how she would do cancer alone. Thankfully, this woman did not have breast cancer. Of course, I am glad it turned out this way for her.

She said her experience gave her empathy for people who are alone.

Hello?

I’m sure this fellow writer is a lovely woman. Supporting someone through illness is hard. Losing him/her to that illness is excruciating. I do not diminish her pain because I know it’s real. I can empathize with her because I have lost people in my life. Cancer takes too much.

I am confused though why empathy needs to be directed toward people who are alone. Is aloneness somehow lesser than togetherness? Do my experiences when I spend time with friends, family, or a group of people give me empathy for people with partners? They do not. I may at times feel a little thankful to be back home and away from some of the stimulation and unwelcomed opinions, but I do not have empathy for people in a relationship. It sounds absurd when the shoe is on the other foot.

Somehow the comment rubbed me the wrong way. It seemed more bothersome to me that she felt empathy for people who are alone than for people who have cancer. I just kept scratching my head. It felt like pity or that someone was feeling sorry for me. I don’t want someone’s sorrow. Her remarks made me feel like she was saying, “Thank goodness I didn’t have cancer and the double whammy of being by myself!” This is more of an inner reflection than what was likely intended. I guess being on my own is a bit of a touchy subject for me, mainly of how I feel society perceives it as something less. I feel like I’m regularly defending my status. Sometimes I feel forgotten. Having cancer and being on my own really isn’t so hard. For one thing, I am reliant on myself and can organize appointments, etc. in a way that works best for me. I don’t have to check with others when I need to change my plans. I know how I feel and I don’t need to try to convince or explain those feelings to someone else. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes I wish I had a little more help and didn’t have to figure everything out. And I do have help. I have plenty of support. I ask for what I need. I feel connected to so many and have nurtured meaningful relationships. Technically, yes, I am doing cancer on my own, but I’m also not. It’s complicated.

“Empathy is simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You’re not alone.’” ~ Brené Brown

Enjoy a short clip from YouTube where Brené Brown explains more about empathy.

I am not sure I’ve done all those things in my reaction to what I read. This post itself has been difficult for me to write. I have felt angry and questioned those feelings. However, it is completely okay, in fact it is fine, more than fine, for me to feel anger. I feel misrepresented. I feel there are indirect implications that are at my expense while someone else is expressing gratitude. Gratitude is not gratitude if someone (or another group) is put down in order for another individual to feel grateful. Nor is it empathy.

Empathy means a lot to a person whether they have someone at their side or they are on their own. Empathy is a universal yearning we all need and we all have the capacity to give. You are putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. It still isn’t quite the same because at the end of the day you put your own shoes back on. Still . . . there are moments when you almost get it. The important part is that you try to get it. I have beloved friends who try to get it.

One of my goals with this blog is to change perspectives on cancer, particularly advanced stage cancer. When I read something that feels a little, “Oh, that poor person has cancer and is alone,” I don’t like anything in that sentence because that feeling of pity permeates whatever sentiment is trying to be conveyed.

It doesn’t feel good.

What feels good is being welcomed to a group. I’d rather hear a compliment about something amazing I accomplished instead of a question on whether I went with anyone while achieving it. It feels good to be appreciated for my other qualities. It feels good to be included in things. If I’m unable to do something, then I may need to pass, but I appreciate being included. I like it when people remember things about me and respect my thoughts and opinions. I like it a lot when I’m not constantly asked about my health and truly treated like one of the gang. A small bit of thoughtfulness goes a long ways. It is how I believe we all can treat one another respectfully and compassionately.

Empathy in action is a lifestyle choice.

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Taken at the UW-Arboretum in Madison, WI.

It’s possible I’m confusing empathy with sympathy, but I don’t think I am. In fact, I think some other people are. I certainly don’t want anyone’s sympathy or sorrow. It belittles and demeans if directed at me because I’m living with cancer. I want an even playing field. Don’t give me something or take something from me because of my health. Don’t give me something or take something from me because I’m single. I didn’t ask for your sorrow or pity. I’ve asked for your encouragement, support, and friendship. These are the things I offer.

There is something else you can give me: caramel. If someone were to offer me a caramel, I would not say no. Really good caramels are an entirely different story. It just might be an edible form of empathy.

Empathy is feeling as sad for a friend as if the event were happening to you. It’s understanding your friend is in a lot of emotional or physical pain. Empathy is understanding a perspective that’s the polar opposite of yours. Parents and teachers demonstrate empathy every time they know that something that isn’t a big deal at all really is a huge deal to a child. You show empathy to me when you understand that I may cancel plans, not feel one hundred percent, and don’t ask me a laundry list of questions. It means a lot to me when you share something hard in your life rather than me always explaining my latest hurdle that I try to embellish with a little humor thrown in for good measure.

Empathy is not making comments along the lines of “It’s too bad you had to get cancer.” Yeah, I just don’t know what I was thinking when I was in the cancer store. It isn’t empathetic to tell someone what he/she feels. Neither is telling someone what he/she needs to do to fix what is deemed not right (health, job, loss, etc.). Empathy is not putting someone down or saying things could be worse or that he/she should feel grateful. The words “at least” aren’t used at all. Please don’t tell me to live life to the fullest because tomorrow I could get hit by a bus. What many people don’t understand is that I’m running from that stupid bus every day. These things seem obvious to me, but I’ve heard them all. Perhaps the intention isn’t to show empathy, but to show something far less kind. I can’t figure it out.

And empathy definitely is not knowing what it might be like to have cancer and be alone because you had a scare and everything turned out just fine. You put your own shoes back on and walked on.

Empathy is something we all need and we all have the ability to give. At best, we understand what it’s like to be scared, perhaps terrified about our health and our future. We understand all the “what ifs” that run wild in our thoughts. We understand that disease can be a very lonely place to live. We can relate to one another that our upsetting news, event, or circumstance may be completely different from another person’s struggle, but that they are the same in that they are unsettling, frightening, and possibly very lonely feelings. We understand people are doing the best they can with what they have. Empathy connects us to one another. Through empathy we can share with and support one another. IMG_1836

I can empathize with those feelings.

I am not alone.

You are not alone either.

Consider replying:

  1. Where have you seen empathy alive and well in your life?
  2. How do you best handle situations when someone is not empathetic?

Lucky Leprechauns and Health

Many years ago, a middle-aged Irish woman started off a bus tour of Killarney and the surrounding area with these words, “When God made time, He made plenty of it.”

If you don’t hear her accent, you’re reading it wrong. Go back and reread it with a lilt that would make a leprechaun jealous. Her words still echo true twenty plus years later.

Too many of us rush around trying to get more and more done, believing that quantity is better than quality. If we could SLOW DOWN a little, we would find there is more than enough time for what truly matters – things like love, joy, learning, and truly working to make the world a better place. At the end of the day, these are the important things. If you feel like you never have enough time, you are trying to do too much. Taking care of yourself and your health may take a back seat. Important things are likely being neglected or pushed off until later. Later never comes. No one can keep doing everything all the time. We need sleep, peace, and joy.

There is plenty of time.

Make changes.

We all have the same number of minutes in a day. If working out is a priority, time opens up for it. If more time is needed to read to or play with your children, you will find it. If you sit watching hours of television or mindlessly checking various social media accounts, well, there goes your time. We all have the same amount. We all use it differently.

I could make more time to clean my home, but I don’t and I don’t care. Not a priority.

I hope I never become allergic to dust.

Slow down.

I believe it’s healthy to slow down. Slowing down lowers stress and increases happiness. How do you do that if you want to slow down a little or a lot? I’ve asked myself these questions:

What is it that I really want to make time for?
Where do I feel like I waste time every day?
How can I make my life easier?
What happens if “x” just doesn’t get done for a day or two?

My answers revealed my priorities. Too much time is wasted on various screens throughout the day. Making a list keeps me more focused. I used to find lists too controlling, but that leads me to the answer to my last question. If something doesn’t get crossed off the list or completed, I really don’t care.

Leprechauns have always struck me as happy, healthy, and lucky. I don’t know how they spend their time, other than mischief-making and making tiny boots. They know a secret the rest of us are trying to learn. The Irish woman giving the Killarney bus tour knew the secret.

Why are leprechauns so happy?

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I think it’s a combination of the whiskey, jigging, and being around so much healing green. I love all three of these, however, these days I’m limited to jigging and loving green things. No worries, I can still channel my “inner whiskey” when I need it. Don’t ask me what I mean by that because I’m not sure. I just do it. Leprechauns also are so small that joy and happiness (and maybe a little mischief) just oozes out because it has no other choice. We all need to have that leprechaun spark ignited within us.

How can we be just as lucky as leprechauns?

Some people are just thought to be luckier than others. I am really lucky at getting awesome parking spaces. But there are things to do to improve your chances. Believing you are lucky increases your chances of getting what you want. It changes your perspective. You become more receptive to opportunities around you. That has the potential to change health opportunities and outcomes. I think the same is true with time. When a person thinks there is no time – there isn’t. When a person thinks there is enough time to do something – somehow time opens up so such and such magically gets done.

I have heard that lucky people are clear on their goals and voice them. A leprechaun is very clear on his goal to hold on to his gold. No fancy or flowery language. I figure a leprechaun has two main goals:

Keep its gold.

Be a leprechaun.

How can I find my gold?

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What is my gold? My health. I need to feed it good food, fuel it with fun exercise, and surround myself with people who love me. I need to make time for what keeps me happy and healthy.

Lucky people also are proactive. They put themselves in settings where what they seek is present. They go to fundraisers to meet doctors and researchers. They go to writing conferences and send query letters to agents and publishers. They audition for plays, sing on “The Voice,” and run for public office. Lucky people talk about their interests and visions. Asking questions is a sign of being proactive because you get answers and make progress. Here I am a little stumped as to how a leprechaun making little shoes and boots all day relates to their goal of protecting their gold. Share a theory if you have one.

My grandma’s ancestors came from Ireland. She always had a twinkle in her eye and personified some of the mischief leprechauns are said to have. Grandma lived until she was 98 years old. I think she knew whatever the Irish woman from the bus tour knew.

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My grandma had more than a twinkle in her eye. She sparkled all over.

The truth of the matter is a leprechaun doesn’t need a pot of gold. He’s never using it. It seems a sign of greed for those who want to steal it. If I ever meet one, I wouldn’t ask for it because I’d be tricked out of it anyway. I wouldn’t even ask for shoes. Instead I’d ask for a bit of healing magic. They are said to be magical and covered from head to toe in green. Green is healing. Healing is golden to me.

So, what have I learned about leprechauning?

  • Green is a wonderful color.
  • Doing a jig is non-stop fun.
  • A leprechaun has plenty of time.
  • We all have plenty of time.
  • A leprechaun is lucky because it believes it’s lucky.
  • It knows what it wants and it is clear on its goals.
  • A leprechaun is proactive.
  • It doesn’t even need its pot of gold.
  • Its gold is found within and that really is what we all are after.
  • We all can be leprechauns.

It seems fitting to end with a traditional Irish blessing:

May the road rise up to meet you.

May the wind be always at your back.

May the sun shine warm upon your face.

May the rains fall soft upon your fields.

And, until we meet again,

May God hold you in

The palm of His hand.

I can’t believe I have to say this, but if you didn’t say the Irish blessing with an Irish accent, you’re still doing it wrong. Go back and do it properly.

And may you make your own luck.

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